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Stars align for Phil Younghusband as 50th career goal comes in Azkals' biggest win

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Azkals will make first ever AFC Asian Cup appearance (3:25)

Philippine Azkals made Philippine football history by qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup for the first time by squeaking past a game Tajikistan, 2-1, Tuesday night at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. (3:25)

If there's one Philippine football player who has been synonymous with the Azkals for the past several years, it's got to be Phil Younghusband.

The Azkals striker has been a regular fixture of the national team since he and elder brother James arrived here 13 years ago to represent the country in the 2005 Southeast Asian Games. He has seen the highs and lows of the sport, played in front of both a near-empty Rizal Stadium and one filled to capacity, and experienced both exhilarating wins and deflating losses.

He was there in 2010 for the Miracle in Hanoi, scoring the insurance goal that sealed the Azkals' historic AFF Suzuki Cup win over the heavily favored Vietnamese that propelled them to a historic semifinal stint and revived local interest in football.

So, 13 years later with the Azkals on the verge on another historic moment, it was but fitting that Younghusband again delivered the insurance goal.

The Azkals captain, as he has done countless times before, scored on a penalty kick in the 90th minute to lift the Azkals to a 2-1 win over Tajikistan in their AFC Asian Cup qualifying match and gift-wrap their ticket to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup next year.

That the goal was also Phil's 50th as an Azkal made this doubly sweeter, the cherry on the top of what he now ranks as no. 1 on his list of most memorable games, although he'll take the win over a personal milestone.

"To me, the feeling of qualification, that's the one that matters to me," he told reporters after the game. "As I said before, whether it came in this game or in 10 games, that 50th goal wasn't on my mind. It was about getting the win. The fact that it comes at the same time obviously makes it special."

The celebration almost didn't happen, though, as Tajikistan, needing a win as opposed to the Azkals just needing a draw, scored first.

"It was an emotional game. It's a difficult game when you know you don't need to win the game. We tried to be as cautious as possible, and we knew they had to go out and win the game. When they scored the first goal, I think that inspired us to play our best football because we knew we needed to attack, we needed to score."

And score they did, with Kevin Ingreso levelling the count in the 74th minute off a header before Younghusband closed it out after Patrick Reichelt was fouled inside the box.

New kid on the block is now a veteran

Phil and James were teenagers when they came over to play for their mother's country of birth. It was the start of what would be a colorful journey for the brothers, and Phil in particular, as the Azkals' sudden fame turned him into a local celebrity.

"Obviously I was very new so I didn't know what to expect," he recalled about their arrival here. "As I've become a more senior player, I understand a little bit more what's going on in Philippine football. I'm very blessed to be part of it."

The Miracle in Hanoi will be eight years old in December, and in that time span the Azkals have seen football surge in popularity, plateau, and gradually taper off as the team struggled to take the next big step. Through it all, countless number of players have worn the Azkals uniform, but only three remain from that 2010 team.

"There's me, my brother James, and Neil (Etheridge)," Phil said. "Chris (Greatwich, who scored that first goal against Vietnam) is part of the coaching staff now. (Former defender) Rob Gier, we just had on Facetime. We're still in touch with the players who'd been part of it before. They're celebrating just as much as us because without those guys this moment wouldn't happen."

Given everything he has accomplished, does Phil think his legacy is secure?

"I don't know if I have a legacy here yet," he answered with a chuckle. "I'm just happy to be a part of it. I think this cements everyone's legacy. I just feel very blessed that I get play the sport I love in the country I love."

Almost eight years ago, Phil Younghusband helped the Azkals make history and helped the sport reach new heights of popularity. Now things have come full circle for him, the team, and local football. For Phil, he wouldn't mind a case of déjà vu.

"Just like in 2010, hopefully this moment can inspire another resurgence in Philippine football."